Book Review: Hsu’s Behind Deep Blue

Author: Feng-Hsiung Hsu
Title: Behind Deep Blue: Building the Computer that Defeated the World Chess Champion

Photo by Jason Polak (A chess set I received when I was sixteen).

Photo by Jason Polak (A chess set I received when I was sixteen).

I love battles of skill and stories of seemingly impossible goals. That’s the stuff of Bruce Lee, the Riemann hypothesis, and getting a tenure-track position. And then there’s the computer chess problem: create a machine that can beat the world chess champion at tournament-time chess. This happened nearly twenty years ago, when Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. This is the story told in Behind Deep Blue by Feng-Hsiung Hsu.

Today in 2016, far more advanced chess programs like Stockfish running on a laptop can easily vanquish world-class human players. Hsu’s book however, has lost none of its intrigue or charm. Of course, there are several books written about Deep Blue, many of them chess analyses. Behind Deep Blue however is not a chess book. After all, if it were I wouldn’t be reviewing it on a mathematics blog. Instead, Behind Deep Blue is a story about a bunch of guys solving a computer science and hardware engineering problem.

Deep Blue was created by a team of individuals, Hsu being the one that initiated the project at Carnegie Mellon where the book begins. Hsu and his friends developed several chess playing machines that rose to the top of the computer chess world and during this time the strength of their machines and their competitors’ machines increased enormously. Part of the charm of the book is the vivid descriptions of the human aspect of the engineering efforts amidst the graduate life in the late eighties, which is amazingly different than it is today. At the same time, the development and battling of various chess programs is fascinating. Despite the complexity of the chess problem and the Deep Blue machine itself, the book itself is a light and easy read. I’ll even admit it was a page-turner that kept me up a little too late the two times I’ve read it.

The second part of Hsu’s story consists of the development of the Deep Blue machine at IBM. As the goal towards an inevitable win against Kasparov nears, the tension in the book rises. The excitement is only enhanced by the previous encouters described with Kasparov against lesser machines. The final exciting match with Kasparov is described in the most detail, and is one of the best parts of the book.

There are plenty of emotions contained in Behind Deep Blue. The fun of solving problems, the stress over progress, and the shock of the humans that were defeated by computers all shine through clearly. Hsu writes masterfully and shows that highly technical work, while perhaps forbidding to outsiders, is just as human an activity as any other.

Incidentally, next month on March 9-15 there will be a Go match between Google’s AlphaGo machine and Lee Sedol, the highest ranked Go player in the world.

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